HC Deb 09 March 1994 vol 239 cc268-71
5. Mr. Milburn

To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement on his plans to assist manufacturing industry in the regions.

Mr. Heseltine

All United Kingdom manufacturers will benefit from the underlying strength of the economy and the best set of economic indicators for many years. Our new initiatives for integrated regional offices and business links will help to ensure that manufacturers in the regions can take full advantage of this.

Mr. Milburn

Are not the 200,000 British manufacturing jobs that have been lost since the last general election a sign not of success but of Government failure? When will the Secretary of State take positive action to stem the haemorrhage of skills, talent and enterprise from regions such as the north, or is he content, as usual, merely to sit back and see the country's future being poured down the drain?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman does not understand that most of the jobs have been lost because of the drive for efficiency and improved productivity on which the future of those companies depends. There is no choice but to make our industries competitive. If right hon. and hon. Gentlemen wish to see this country's economy cut to ribbons, all they have to do is say that we should overman it and have levels of productivity that are not world-competitive.

Mr. Quentin Davies

Will my right hon. Friend continue with his splendid set of policies, which have played an important part in the spectacular resurgence of British manufacturing in the past two years, and which have led to an increase of 1 per cent. in manufacturing output in the month of January alone?

Mr. Heseltine

In the spirit of your instructions, Madam Speaker, the answer is yes.

Dr. Bray

Does the President of the Board of Trade realise that, as the recovery gathers momentum, the new jobs will occur in the areas of high service employment, not in the manufacturing areas of Scotland, Wales and the north? Does he not realise, therefore, that special incentives are needed for manufacturing industry in those regions?

Mr. Heseltine

I do not believe in the overly simple generalisations in which the hon. Gentleman dressed his question. Large parts of our manufacturing industry are extremely competitive today and stand poised to seek the upturn in world trade which is evidently on its way.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Although I recognise the immensely improved economic climate that has been brought about as a result of the Government's policy for manufacturing industry—not least the base rate, interest rates and the establishment of business link, one of which is, I am pleased to say, in Macclesfield—will my right hon. Friend accept that the reintroduction of capital allowances would be of immediate benefit to manufacturing industry and would perhaps bring investment based on success, which this country needs?

Mr. Heseltine

I appreciate my hon. Friend's kind remarks about business link, and I am delighted that Macclesfield is one of the first centres to have such a facility. He will remember, however, that manufacturing output in the fourth quarter of 1993 was 2.2 per cent. higher than a year ago, and that continued opportunity exists without any change to the fiscal arrangements, which must be a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones

I am sure that the President of the Board of Trade is aware that, for many purposes, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Welsh Office have a dual role in attracting inward investment to Wales. I am also sure that he, as a good European, will accept that many regional authorities in Europe are playing an increasing role in attracting inward investment. Does he agree that the Welsh Office should have the lead role in attracting that investment to Wales?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the remarkable achievements that have taken place in Wales as a result of the activities of the Welsh Office and the Welsh Development Agency in the past 10 years. I should have thought that he would support and build on them, without looking for structural change.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what most assists manufacturing industries in the regions is long-term low inflation, which we now have, low interest rates—we now have the lowest since 1972—and the fact that we have the lowest level of strikes since 1891? Does he agree that those three trends would be reversed if the Labour party ever got back into power?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend has little to worry about, because it is evident from Labour Members' questions that there is not the slightest chance of that party ever getting back into power. The fact is that the economic circumstances are now as good as any that I can remember. We must all back British industry in its quest for increasing world markets, enjoying the fact that exports are at an all-time record level.

Mr. Beggs

Will the President of the Board of Trade examine closely the opportunity to keep our highly skilled engineers in the shipbuilding industry at work by making available for ship conversion the small element of assistance that is available in other European Union countries?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman will understand that that is a complex issue. Broadly, the policy of Her Majesty's Government is to seek to eliminate those subsidies, not to increase the numbers available. However, we must always consider what specific effects they may have on British shipyards. Recently, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry was able to announce that we were able to give temporary help to Swan Hunter in the difficult circumstances it faced.

Mr. Batiste

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the biggest threat to manufacturing industry in Britain would be the danger of the high social costs that would follow the implementation of the social chapter, and that it would make so much of our industry uncompetitive in world markets? What representations has my right hon. Friend received from industry on that subject?

Mr. Heseltine

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the question of the social chapter. It so happens that, by coincidence, I have a press release from the CBI which addresses that point specifically in terms of the Labour party's policy on the social chapter. It says that it ignores the rest of the world, ignores the whole purpose of the single market, and ignores the unemployed. That, of course, is why people ignore the Labour party.